As Japan, and indeed the world, struggles to comprehend the devastation resulting from the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11, countries around the world have rushed to offer support in a number of ways. Amongst the aid flowing from the U.S. is a U-2 high-altitude, all-weather surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft that will be used to capture high-resolution, broad area synoptic imagery to help the Japanese identify the location and extent of damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami.
The U-2 aircraft from the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron, which will be used in conjunction with an RQ-4 Global Hawk remotely piloted aircraft from the 9th Operations Group's Detachment 3 at Anderson Air Force Base (AFB) in Guam, will capture imagery using an optical bar camera that, unlike most cameras nowadays, uses traditional film. The camera itself weighs about 300 lbs (136 kg), while the 10,500 feet (3,200 m) of film weighs more than 120 lbs (54 kg). Once the aircraft lands, the film will be shipped to Beale AFB in California, where it will be processed and analyzed by experts.
"The broad, synoptic collection of large land mass and littorals are of great benefit to decision makers. It will aid them in determining locations and extent of damage the earthquake and tsunami have left," " said Lt. Col. Spencer Thomas, the 5th RS commander who likened the imagery to X-rays of a medical injury. "It's like a personal injury; immediately after the event, one must determine where and how they have been injured," he said. "Our mission serves that function."
Once they were notified, Colonel Thomas said it took about 12 hours of planning and preparation to get the aircraft off the ground from Osan Air Base in South Korea on March 13. Because the U-2 flies at altitudes of more than 70,000 feet, the pilot must wear a complete pressure suit similar to those worn by astronauts, meaning the process of preparing the pilot alone takes a couple of hours to complete. From start to finish, the mission is expected to take four to five days.
"I am proud to be part of the humanitarian mission to help our allies," said Staff Sgt. William Ehinger, a U-2 crew chief with the 5th RS. "In fact, all Airmen in the 5th RS are proud to be helping out to provide the data Japan needs to rebuild their country."